Food insecurity skyrockets for area families

Dec. 3—Food insecurity is higher than ever in the area, with two-income households among those struggling with putting food on the table without assistance.

"We're really looking at people who are employed who aren't making enough money to make ends meet with inflation and a lack of affordable housing," said Cassandra Sassenberg, health and human services director with Nicollet County. "We're seeing more people reach out for assistance who maybe wouldn't have needed to in the past."

In Nicollet County, those receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, known as SNAP, have increased from 780 cases last year at this time to 860 cases this year, Sassenberg said. SNAP is a federal program that supplements food budgets for people who can't otherwise afford food.

More people are qualifying for SNAP because of a recent change in the income requirements, she said, with the gross income limit shifting from 165 percent of the poverty guidelines to 200 percent, which was made effective in September. Some families might only qualify for $40 a month in assistance, but that "bridges a gap," Sassenberg said.

"That's where we're seeing the greatest growth," she said. "There's just more people who aren't able to pay for everything."

In Le Sueur County, 1,215 people are receiving SNAP, which is an increase of 415 people since 2019, said Leanne Gieseke, the county's financial assistance supervisor. She attributes the increase to "the rising costs of everything," and said she also noted that during the pandemic, one parent stayed home to care for kids while day cares were closed, and never went back to work.

"A lot of two-income households decided one of the parents would stay home," she said. "A lot of people who weren't on food assistance previously are now using that to get by."

At area food shelves, need is also skyrocketing.

"It's gaining," said Pat Nusbaum, coordinator of the WE Food Shelf that serves the communities of Waterville and Elysian. "It's picking up. There's more people now. It's starting to tick up."

Her food shelf is serving about 60 families a month, she said. Grocery prices have gone up and, as they have, people's need for food assistance has increased.

"Every penny counts," Nusbaum said. "We just want to help them as best as we can."

Demand at ECHO Food Shelf in Mankato has jumped from 45 households a day served last year at this time to 100 to 120 households a day served now, said manager Deisy De Leon.

At the St. Peter Area Food Shelf, about 150 families a month are being served, which has been an increase of 50 percent since June, said manager Andie Kukacka.

"We're seeing a substantial increase in people needing services," he said, "especially people who are visiting multiple times a month to make ends meet."

De Leon said contributing factors are not only increased food prices, but gas prices also have increased and costs of utilities as well. All together, it's resulted in tough times.

"It's a combination of things," she said. "If families are on a tight budget, then a lot of times they're coming to food shelves to make the most out of that budget."

While there's an increasing demand for food services, there's also an increased cost for providing those services, area food shelf managers say. "We are paying a lot more for the food we are distributing," De Leon said. "It's affected families, but it's also affected ECHO."

"There's definitely an issue with people's incomes not being able to cover the cost of living right now," Kukacka said. "We're seeing a lot of working-class households who have both parents working who are still not able to make ends meet, and their need to be able to provide basic necessities for themselves is negatively impacted."

Area food shelf managers stress that for every $1 donated, they have five times the buying power of a typical food shopper.

"For us, receiving monetary donations, we are able to purchase food at better deals than someone in the community is able to purchase it for," De Leon said. "For us, money is the best way to donate but food and time are also great."

For now, food shelves are still able to meet demand, managers say.

"It's the holidays and, for all of us, this is a really important time," De Leon said. "Just remember there are families in our community for whom the holidays tend to be tough. If you can help those families have an enjoyable holiday, why not help? Support them."